Perhaps slavery would have been abolished in the Americas nearly a century earlier, had the Colonists lost the war of Independence?
Most wars are about economic matters, and it’s difficult to over-state how central slavery was to the economy of early America. Yet in 1772, the Somersett Case brought before the King’s Bench which concerned a slave brought to England by a Customs official, and concluded that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law. “The air of England“, as was argued by Somersett’s council “is too pure for a slave to breathe“. Hundreds of American slaves attempted to make the passage to England and freedom following this ruling. Just four years later, the Colonists declared independence. I do not believe these facts are unrelated. George Washington was a major slave-owner as was Thomas Jefferson. Both men appeared to know the institution was wrong, but felt unable to do all that much about it.
The war of Independence was, as the US Civil War a century later, at least in part about slavery. Washington resisted free blacks in the Continental army in which around 500 served for fear of the principle it would set to slaves. America’s first Emancipation proclamation (in reality, a fairly desperate last throw of the dice by someone hoping a slave rebellion would carry the day for the Crown) was issued by the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore in 1775. Thousands of freed slaves fought for the British side against the colonists. While the Dunmore proclamation may have hastened the end of slavery in the American colonies had the British won, the abolition of slave trade (1806) and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (1833) may have had a much harder run. The abolitionists would have faced a greater array of more powerful economic interests.
It’s a comforting Narrative for the Englishman therefore that slavery was abolished in the British Empire before it was in most other European and American powers, and that having done so, the might of the Royal Navy was deployed in suppressing the trade. This does not absolve the UK, or the British Empire of the stain of slavery. While the British may have been the first power to end slavery, while the slave trade was legal, and for some time while it wasn’t, the British economy was enormously boosted by the trade in humans, which ceased when it was becoming less economically viable. The British and Portuguese were by far the biggest slave traders for over 200 years.
Around 11m (estimates vary hugely) Africans were forcibly removed over the 300 years of the triangular Atlantic trading route, of which slaves from West Africa to the Americas formed the “middle passage”. This devastated the societies and economies of the entire continent, and left much of Africa, even into the interior, a low-trust society to this day. Unlike the Black Death in Western Europe, an equivalent tragedy, which left the remaining people richer, the slave trade left societies in which people could not invest in land or technology because of the ever-present risk of kidnap. There is evidence that many tribes actually regressed, abandoning technologies such as crop-rotation and the plough in response to this onslaught. Much of West Africa is corrupt, violent and poor as a direct legacy of the Slave trade.
The societies which escaped the worst excesses colonialism and slavery, notably Namibia and Botswana, are doing much better than the rest of Africa to this day probably because their tribal institutions and societies weren’t ruptured by grotesque incentives of the slave trade. The south was poorer and remains poorer than the rest of the USA because of slavery and Jim Crow. The “special institution” has devastated Africa and left America uncomfortable in its soul following centuries of Race-laws, hate, fear and torture in the Southern states. It’s a special kind of evil that poisoned everything it touched and does so to this day.
And that’s before we consider the individual human cost. Millions of lives lost to sickness, violence, warfare and simply being thrown overboard should the middle passage prove longer than counted for in supplies. Think about that for a minute.
This may not have happened on the Tecora, on the voyage depicted in Amistad, but it did happen.
It’s not an exaggeration to conclude the industrial trade in Humans, at which the British once excelled, is a historic crime of an equivalent magnitude to the Holocaust. This is why I do not get angry when politicians talk about reparations for slavery. I am rich and free and many Africans poor, in part because of the enduring legacy of slavery.
Why am I writing this now? I read ’12 years a slave’ by Solomon Northup the movie of which is to be released in the UK shortly. The more I read, the more fascinating I find the entire grotesque, horrifying business. It’s a short book, and one I urge you to read before you go see the movie.